Sometimes I think of the past as a huge black box, and any time you read a book of history or a biography or a historical novel it’s like shining a concentrated beam of light through that darkness, briefly bringing to light what is in its path. Other beams may come from a movie or play or TV series.
Lately I have been having fun reading simultaneously two books that take place within years of each other. Meyer Levin’s novel, The Old Bunch, concerns a group of Jewish kids growing up on Chicago’s west side in the Twenties and facing early adulthood in the Thirties. I’ve also been reading Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd stories, a series of 11 novels concerning the illegitimate son of a New England munitions manufacturer who is raised in Europe by his free-spirited mother and, because he becomes an art dealer, has access to many of the leading political and cultural figures of the time. In the book I’m reading now, A World to Win, Lanny is continuing to pretend to vaguely right-wing sympathies so that he can report back to FDR what is going on in those circles. In The Old Bunch, the characters talk about what an anti-Semitic bastard Henry Ford is (Ford was still very much alive when the book came out); in World, Lanny meets Ford to take his measure for FDR. In The Old Bunch, the gang deals with the effects of the Depression on their personal lives and businesses. In the Lanny Budd books, Sinclair offers a view of how the Depression disrupts Europe and hastens WWII.
These books can’t help but bounce off my memory of Voices of Protest, Alan Brinkley’s double portrait of Father Coughlin and Huey Long. (Lanny meets Coughlin in one of Sinclair’s novels.) And, of course, reading about Coughlin and Long can’t help but remind me of the thug in the White House, who similarly used populism to accrue power. (Long may have ultimately been something of a gangster, but you have to credit him with having built schools, hospitals and roads that brought Louisiana into the twentieth century. A crook, yes, but he left a legacy of having done more of value than most of the other southern governors.)
Netflix has also been offering some unconventional views of history. I am a big fan of Babylon Berlin, a German series set in Berlin in 1929 which throws together Stalinists, Trotskyites, gangsters and the early stirrings of the Nazis to make an intoxicatingly toxic brew. Since most of Berlin was destroyed during WWII, the show is a recreation of the city that had to be researched in old books, newsreels and photos. (I wrote a play at the end of the war called Berlin ‘45. When I thought vaguely of flying over to look around, a friend familiar with the town said, “Why? You won’t see anything there left of the world you’re writing about.”) It’s a world Lanny would have known well. In fact, when in Berlin Lanny usually stays in the Hotel Adlon, which I could picture with some specificity having seen a very good German 2016 miniseries (available on Amazon streaming) called, yes, Hotel Adlon.
Another Netflix offering I’ve started watching is a new British series called Traitors. It is about a young woman with Tory sympathies (played by Emma Appleton) who is manipulated into spying on the British government for a rogue American agent (Michael Stuhlbarg). The story has its share of intrigue and murders, but I’m most taken with the vivid picture of post-war Britain, particularly the split between the Tories–shocked that Winston Churchill was thrown out of office as the war was ending–and Labour supporters, the non-aristocratic people who hope postwar politics will actually do something by way of housing, education and health. These impressions in turn link up with the comedies Ealing Studios put up which focused on how a lot of the common people copes with scarcity and change.
And then I start thinking about John Osborne and Jimmy Porter and Suez and the arrival of the Beyond the Fringe gang and John le Carré and the Beatles and … The associations don’t end. The various stories insist on chattering in an endless dialogue in my head.